Belgian reunites with World War II vet who befriended family
SCOTT DEPOT, W.Va. -- Dany Defechereux flew from Belgium to the United States this week to meet the soldier who befriended his family and stood for freedom during wartime.
"This is what I had to do," Defechereux said.
Defechereux arrived in West Virginia on Wednesday and was met at Yeager Airport by William Conrad "Connie" Young, who served in the U.S. Army during World War II.
The last time they saw each other in person was 69 years ago. The two men knew each other immediately from photographs they had exchanged. They embraced and felt an emotional bond of friendship.
Defechereux brought along his wife, Francine, and one of their four daughters, Christine. Young was with a mutual friend, Josette Gryzberg, who could help with any language barriers.
But let's start at the beginning of the story of a Belgian boy who touched the heart of a young American soldier.
During World War II in 1944, Young said his outfit had moved into Esneux, Belgium, and began setting up a tent when a little Belgian boy approached the soldiers.
"He had this egg in his hand and he handed it to me," Young said. "His family thought we needed food. I thought they needed it more than we did."
While he declined the gift of the egg, he visited the boy's family and the foundation was created for a friendship that would last throughout the decades. The child lived in an apartment not far from where the soldiers were setting up camp. Dany lived with his parents, Pauline and Emile, and two older sisters, Mariette and Madeleine.
Young visited the family almost daily during the few weeks he stayed in the town. They spoke no English, but he had picked up enough French to communicate. Dany's father belonged to the Belgian underground movement working against the Germans, and his mother was a homemaker.
Dec. 24, 1944, was Young's 21st birthday, and the family had a celebration for him. He remembers they served French fries, but he can't recall the rest of the meal.
"They were always doing things for me and getting me things they thought I needed," said Young, who also remembers the tragedies of those days.
On Christmas Day in 1944, a truck carrying 11 American soldiers plunged into icy water, and Young dove in to try and save them. He pulled one man out who was already dead, and the others perished as well. He said he kept thinking of their parents back home.
"When I crossed the street, a man handed me a glass and some cognac," he said. "I didn't need both. I didn't need the glass."
When Young returned home, he worked at Union Carbide, married and had children. As the years flew by, he stayed in touch with the Defechereux family through Christmas cards and occasional notes.
In 1978, Pauline Defechereux flew to Massachusetts to visit a friend, Gryzberg, who was born in Belgium and moved to the U.S. in 1946 when she married an American. Young traveled to Massachusetts to see Pauline, who died a few years later. Emile had passed away several years before her visit to America. In December of 2008, Young lost his wife, Elinor.
Over the years, he often shared stories of the Defechereux family with his three daughters, Janet Spry and Phyllis Stephens, both of Scott Depot, and Jane Jones, of Rockwall, Texas.
Young decided to get a computer and learn to send emails so he could communicate with Dany. He was able to get his email address through mutual friend Gryzberg.
Dany Defechereux, now 72, said he was too young to remember the story of the egg.
"I was born May 1941, and he came for three weeks in December 1944," he said. "It is impossible to remember. It's important. I come with an egg to Bill. I don't know if this egg was cook or no cook. I make the transportation of this egg. After the egg and the birthday of Bill he keep contact with us. This is fantastic."
He kept communicating with Young through email. With his accent, the telephone was more difficult. Defechereux studied English in school.
Over the years, Defechereux worked in the technical department for a gas company and traveled frequently. For various reasons, a trip to America never worked out, until this week.
"Since I am retired, I email Bill," he said. "This young guy came to our country to deliver us. I must absolutely visit the U.S.A. to visit Bill."
Young said, "His family was one of the best families I ever met."
When communicating in English becomes difficult, Gryzberg is there to interpret.
She moved from Massachusetts to West Virginia in 2011. She is a widow, and her only daughter died of cancer in 2004.
While visiting Young in Scott Depot one day, she was told she should look at a house that was for sale down the street. She bought the house and moved to West Virginia to be near her friend.
"I had a lot to gain," she said. "There was nothing to keep me in Massachusetts, and the taxes there are too high. I am 90 years old. Don't be afraid to take a chance. You have more fun when you get old. You don't worry so much. You just live and enjoy."
The Defechereux family is staying at the Young house and eating meals Gryzberg prepares at her house. The family plans to spend some time in Washington, D.C., before flying back to Belgium next Wednesday.
Contact writer Charlotte Ferrell Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1246.